Saturday, September 30, 2006

Saturday Star Trek Blogging

by Tom Bozzo

(Yes, I am fiddling while Rome burns today. Go see the action at Hullabaloo or Gary's very understandable outburst as needed.)

For those of you who don't click through the links, Ken's cryptic post from yesterday points to a Christie's auction of Lots and Lots of Star Trek production paraphernalia — visual effects miniatures, costumes, pieces from various sets, and other props — a.k.a. "40 Years of Star Trek: The Collection." Most items appear to be from the sequel series, though there are some items from the films and the original series, too.

I'd expect the collector interest ordering to be, in descending order:
Original series, greater films (*), Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager (**), and Enterprise, with some of the lesser films (***) sprinkled among the lower ranks.

I looked mostly at major special effects miniatures. The original Enterprise is out of the market, having been donated to the Smithsonian in 1974.

So, testing my priors, the top items are:
To bring in the world of Star Wars collecting for some perspective, this amazing LEGO model of an Episode III Republic Star Destroyer — with Lucas's autograph on a certificate of authenticity — sold in an eBay auction benefiting Habitat for Humanity for $31,600, per the Wookieepedia.

It's not too surprising that TNG's Enterprise should be top dog in the auction.
Indeed, the price for a LEGO Star Wars artifact makes me think that if the bigger E's don't clear their estimates, it's a bearish sign for wealthy dorks.

While I'd tend to see the films' Enterprise as the most desirable catch historically — it's perhaps hard to remember now that the concept has been milked pretty dry, and any IP that has the slightest retro-kitsch appeal is brought to the big screen, that bringing Star Trek back was once a big deal as such things go — it's big enough (100 in. long) that it can't just grace a geek CEO's office. Since the small Enterprise (22", actually an ILM customization of a commercial plastic model) can, it's not too surprising that its estimate overlaps with its big brother and exceeds those of the larger models of lesser ships. The Enterprise-D is a great design and having watched TNG for [redacted] hours/day during grad school, I cant begrudge it the top of the auction's heap.

The other historically notable piece among the models is the First (I started mistyping it as Frist — Freudian slip) Contact Enterprise-E, which is a Late Relic of the pre-CGI era. The prequel series Enterprise NX-01 was all-CGI. Certainly Lucas also went nuts with CGI in the prequel trilogy (******), so the price of the LEGO ship may well be driven by the absence of physical models for the high-end collectors to seek out.

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(*) In my book, Khan and First Contact.

(**) While I couldn't muster much excitement over it, I admit that Kathryn Janeway was the most Federation Officerish lead of any of the series. Unfortuntately, as is implied extensively elsewhere in the Canon, Real Federation Officers are kind-of wankerish.

(***) Esp. Star Trek V: Who The Hell Let Shatner Direct? and Star Trek IX: Maybe the Next Generation Bunch Sucked After All (N.B.: I haven't seen Nemesis).

(****) But I have a soft spot for it, in part for the pr0nographic attention to ILM's surface detail on the model that you can get for just a few tens of G's.

(*****) Though the space/time compression involved in transmitting the Klingon homeworld's eco-disaster to the outside galaxy makes the convenient application of instantaneous transport to galactic backwaters in the Star Wars prequels look mild by comparison.

(******) Whereas Jar-Jar Binks is often considered a huge mistake, making Anakin a kindergartner in Ep. 1 was the Flaw that doomed the rest of the prequel trilogy by (1) subjecting us to Jake Lloyd, and (2) making Darth Vader of an Age at the requisite time that Lucas was tempted to cast Hayden Christensen in the role.

Friday, September 29, 2006

I've been ignoring this deliberately, but...

by Ken Houghton

It would be interesting to analyse the data of this auction (alliance, expected low, expected high, and actuals) to check spending patterns across generations.

UPDATE: More here, and an update on the results here. It would be fair to say that the pre-sale estimates for the Major Items were nearly uninformative. -ATB

Fun With Tax Data

by Tom Bozzo

Max brought the news: the latest tax data tables (from 2004) have been published by the IRS fairy!

A fair number of the Google hits here appear to be seeking income distribution data, and for a change we won't offer a crushing disappointment to those searchers. "Adjusted Gross Income" for U.S. income tax purposes has its deficiencies as an income measure, but it's right in this here table [.xls] for convenient examination. There's much more at this page.

The basic picture is that after seeing a post-stock market bust turnaround begin in 2003, the top 1% of taxpayers did quite well in '04 — nearly returning to boom levels, in fact. (We can guess what next year's release of '05 data will show.)

AGI Percentiles

The relatively small AGI declines for at the 50th and 75th percentiles reinforces Max's conclusion that the bubble burst was the problem for the rich, more than the recession. As we've noted here before, the masses simply don't have enough financial assets, and by extension capital income, for the bust to make a big dent.

Much of the upward trend in the data, especially at the median and 75th percentile, is inflation. After inflation adjustment there is, not surprisingly, large divergence between the masses and the income elites. This shows the relative changes by percentile since 1986:

AGI Indexes

The later-morning in America did nothing to speak of for the lower three-quarters or so of the population, and the late-nineties boom only returned the median-AGI taxpayer to the 1986 level after inflation. Even into the quite-well-to-do (90th percentile taxpayers, say) have not exactly seen rapid real AGI growth on balance. But hey, we have dirt-cheap DVD players!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Dept. of "If Only"

by Tom Bozzo

What if Dick Cheney were just some cranky Poli Sci professor at some out-of-the-way U — maybe a 101st Fighting Keyboarder envying the Instaputz while Lynne toils grading undergraduate essays. Perhaps in the parallel universe where Dick finished his Ph.D. at UW-Madison. (Maybe we can move there.)

Over at Waxing America, Barry Orton takes the wraps off a brilliant piece of political art, placing mock historical markers commemorating Cheney's time as a Madison grad student:
It was here in this modest, and since rebuilt, married student housing, in 1967- 1968, that Richard B. Cheney (Nickname: “Dick”) and his wife Lynne V. Cheney, lived in their second and final year as UW graduate students in Madison. Safe from the draft...and continuing his pursuit of his “other priorities in the 60’s than military service,” Cheney failed to complete his Ph.D. in political science while living here. Then, as now, nearly every country on the globe was represented by the graduate student families living in Eagle Heights. Perhaps Cheney’s exposure to this diversity of humanity provided a basis for a vow to never live in proximity to these people again.
It might be funnier in the absence of certain dispiriting political developments (*). But it's still very funny. Read the rest!

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(*) Yo Tom Carper, WTF?!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Jack Speak

by Tom Bozzo

Go read the whole thing at Balkinization:
I am puzzled by and ashamed of the Democrats' moral cowardice on [the torture] bill. The latest version of the bill blesses detainee abuse and looks the other way on forms of detainee torture; it immunizes terrible acts; it abridges the writ of habeas corpus-- in the last, most egregious draft, it strips the writ for alleged enemy combatants whether proved to be so or not, whether citizens or not, and whether found in the U.S. or overseas.

This bill is simply outrageous. I doubt whether many Democratic Senators or staffs have read the bill or understand what is in it. Instead, they seem to be scrambling over themselves to vote for it out of a fear that the American public will think them weak and soft on terror.

The reason why the Democrats have not been doing very well on these issues, however, is that the public does not believe that they stand for anything other than echoing what the Republicans have been doing with a bit less conviction. If the Republicans are now the Party of Torture, the Democrats are now the Party of "Torture? Yeah, I guess so." Not exactly the moral high ground from which to seek office.

The Democrats may think that if they let this pass, they are guaranteed to pick up more seats in the House and Senate. But they will actually win less seats this way. For they will have proved to the American people that they are spineless and opportunistic-- that, when faced with a genuine choice and a genuine challenge, they can keep neither our country nor our values safe.

Amen. Sen. Levin says, "It’s hard to know how to vote on a bill that’s this much in motion.” This would be a good time for the Democrats' would-be moral leaders (Sen. Feingold?!) to start making some serious commotion before it's too late. An old-fashioned filibuster might help wake up the rest of the caucus as needed.

Not only would this be good politics, but it's good policy, too. Just look at that NIE excerpt. The causal factors behind the metastasizing Islamic terrorist movements boil down to failure to (if not outright impossibility of) winning hearts and minds with the military's admittedly very impressive capabilities for blowing stuff up. If military force won't do that trick, how on earth will adding torture to our repertoire do anything more than reinforce "[e]ntrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination."

On the other hand, if you really do want to demoralize what should be your most ardent supporters in an election that will turn in large part on which party can best turn out its faithful, go ahead. But don't say we didn't tell you so.

But what does this do to Cobb-Douglas?

by Ken Houghton

The problem:
Under pressure from the European Union to cut its deficits

and its "thinking outside the box" (no pun intended, no cliche left unturned) solution:
Greece is revising its gross domestic product to include part of the booming black economy, boosting its output by at least 10 percent in 2006, the country's chief statistician told Reuters.

So what does this mean?
"The revised GDP will include some money from illegal activities, such as money from cigarette and drinks smuggling, prostitution and money laundering," National Statistics Service chief Manolis Kontopyrakis said in an interview.

And how is it at least 10 percent?
Greece's economic output was 180 billion euros ($228 billion) in 2005 and is estimated at 194 billion euros this year, while the black economy is estimated at about 40-60 billion euros a year.

Looks like a potential for 20-30% to me; good thing they're starting with the low-hanging fruit.

Noise vs. Signal in Economic News: New Home Sales Edition

by Tom Bozzo

The Census Bureau this morning surprised the economic forecasting community by reporting a month-to-month rise in new home sales from July to August — estimated sales rose 4.1 percent versus a reported expected decline of 3 percent.

As a rule, though especially for reports of esoteric economic activity indexes, hard-to-measure stuff such as consumer confidence, I often wish for some discussion of typical variability of the data and generally some "so what" discussion. (*)

In this case, the difference between +4.1% and -3% in annualized home sales has a reasonable claim to practical significance. But statistically, helpful information provided by the Census Bureau with the release suggests that the month-to-month changes in new home sales are too noisy to be worthy of much attention — the margin of error on that 4.1 percent is +/- 15.5%. The forecasters almost might as well throw darts for their predictions of the monthly change.

In early stories from AP and Reuters (the former appearing on the NYT website), only Reuters noted the result that annualized sales have plunged 17.4% year over year (+/- 11% — so it's both qualitatively and statistically significant). There is no real joy to be found in the large-ish margin of error on that figure, as year-to-date new home sales are down 15.7% (+/- a modest 4.4%). This is an adverse turnaround of more than 20 percentage points from August 2005.

Nevertheless, this is reported as part of a good economic news stream. Clap louder?

Update: The actual NYT story correctly suggests that there is no "there" there in the headline new home sales figures, but the closest thing to an accurate quote mined from the economic commentariat is a characterization of this month's data as a "dead cat bounce." If any of the experts claimed that the positive surprise could have been statistical noise, it went unreported in the paper of record.

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(*) After all, when it's reported that the Richmond Fed's Central Atlantic manufacturing index rises from a "tepid" 3 to 9, they're obviously not saying that conditions are 300% better. But the Richmond Fed provides, by BLS or Census standards, minimal discussion of survey methodology, sampling error, and potential sources of nonsampling errors.

Operation Ignore

by Tom Bozzo

Via Dan Froomkin (*):

BLITZER: All right. You, in your questioning in your investigation, when you were a member of this commission, specifically asked President Bush about efforts after he was inaugurated on January 20, 2001, until 9/11, eight months later, what he and his administration were doing to kill bin Laden, because by then it was certified, it was authorized. It was, in fact, confirmed that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in December of 2000.

BEN-VENISTE: It's true, Wolf, we had the opportunity to interview President Bush, along with the vice president, and we spent a few hours doing that in the Oval Office. And one of the questions we had and I specifically had was why President Bush did not respond to the Cole attack. And what he told me was that he did not want to launch a cruise missile attack against bin Laden for fear of missing him and bombing the rubble.

And then I asked him, 'Well, what about the Taliban?' The United States had warned the Taliban, indeed threatened the Taliban on at least three occasions, all of which is set out in our 9/11 Commission final report, that if bin Laden, who had refuge in Afghanistan, were to strike against U.S. interests then we would respond against the Taliban.

BLITZER: Now, that was warnings during the Clinton administration. . . .

BEN-VENISTE: That's correct.

[snip]

BLITZER: So you the asked the president in the Oval Office -- and the vice president -- why didn't you go after the Taliban in those eight months before 9/11 after he was president. What did he say?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, now that it was established that al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing and the president was briefed in January of 2001, soon after he took office, by George Tenet, head of the CIA, telling him of the finding that al Qaeda was responsible, and I said, 'Well, why wouldn't you go after the Taliban in order to get them to kick bin Laden out of Afghanistan?'

Maybe, just maybe, who knows -- we don't know the answer to that question -- but maybe that could have affected the 9/11 plot.

BLITZER: What did he say?

BEN-VENISTE: He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat. And I found that very discouraging and surprising.

[snip]

BLITZER: Now, you haven't spoken publicly about this, your interview in the Oval Office, together with the other commissioners, the president and the vice president. Why are you doing that right now?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think it's an important subject. The issue of the Cole is an important subject, and there has been a lot of politicization over this issue, why didn't President Clinton respond?

Well, we set forth in the report the reasons, and that is because the CIA had not given the president the conclusion that al Qaeda was responsible. That did not occur until some point in December. It was reiterated in a briefing to the -- to the new president in January...

BLITZER: Well, let me stop you for a second. If former President Clinton knew in December. . .

BEN-VENISTE: Right.

BLITZER: . . . that the CIA and the FBI had, in his words, certified that al Qaeda was responsible, he was still president until January 20, 2001. He had a month, let's say, or at least a few weeks to respond.

Why didn't he?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think that was a question of whether a president who would be soon leaving office would initiate an attack against a foreign country, Afghanistan. And I think that was left up to the new administration. But strangely, in the transition there did not seem to be any great interest by the Bush administration, at least none that we found, in pursuing the question of plans which were being drawn up to attack in Afghanistan as a response to the Cole. [Emphasis added.]


(*) Who would incalculably improve the Washington Post were he to move over from washingtonpost.com.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

John Milo ("Mike") Ford

by Ken Houghton

I have very little to add to either what Teresa or Henry Farrell Said. But this blog has enough people (including Tom) who would or do enjoy reading his work that the passing needs to be noted.

(Straining for a personal note, I see that my wife's second piece [I had misremembered it as her first] for NYRSF was a review of The Princes of the Air. It will do. Now go to Making Light and follow the treasure trove of links, comments, and the references there.)

Addendum 9/27/06: In comments, Gary Farber usefully points to his post, which offers a collection of links from around the blogiverse.

Quid Pro Quo

by Tom Bozzo

This morning, Northwest Airlines sent me an e-mail asking for my support of their efforts to win the right to operate a daily flight from Detroit to Shanghai — the Future of the American Auto Industry Express?

Doug Steenland, I'll sign your petition when you make peace with your unions. And bring back pretzels to economy class, while you're at it.

Teleconferencing may be dull and make it difficult to communicate some types of information (e.g., math and numerical data), at least until it's routinely turned into a VR computer game, but those gripes pale in comparison to the experience of flying without top-level status in your airline's frequent-flyer program.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Safe from Bull

by B. Strong

The TSA has loosened some of the restrictions on liquids and gels that were imposed in August. I'm particularly pleased to see that travellers can take a modest amount of saline solution in the airplane cabin.

I'm distressed to note, though, that I can still only take my cattle prod along if it's in my checked luggage.

Dear Democrats

by Tom Bozzo

Please pay attention to the monkeys at their keyboards: this is a political gift right up there with John Kerry learning in the 2004 presidential debate that President Testy McBlinker had no coherent plans to un-screw the pooch in Iraq. Sen. Kerry's strategerists erred grandly in viewing that as a distraction from their efforts to run on economic issues. This is a chance to set that right by acknowledging what is not only right but also popular!

The NYT quoted Rep. Jane Harmon as follows:
This administration is trying to change the subject. I don’t think voters are going to buy that.
Since the obvious needs to be said as loudly as possible, let me note that the trick, right out of Karl Rove's playbook, is for Democrats to work Iraq into everything the way any Bush speech is a fusillade of malapropos 9/11 references. That these tactics were endorsed by our conservative blog-pal Bryan Smith, presently applying his new PhD to cancer research in another state instead of blogging, is no flaw. (Real conservatives should deplore the wastes of blood, treasure, and military power.)

Remember, it's true (!) that many combinations of a half-trillion dollars' expenditure plus the combat strength of the U.S. military could have been spent to reduce the threat of terrorism.

The administration response — that the Iraq bombshell “is not representative of the complete document" — is itself a signal of weakness. Arguing that it's "out of context," even if true, is a lot different from claiming that the NIE has been misrepresented; you don't need to be an overly sharp litigator to take it as an admission of truth. Obviously, it would be interesting to know how the complete document might differ. More focuses on the stunning successes to date in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan? If you think Iraq is a Charlie Foxtrot, just wait for the sequel? The possibilities are endless.

So, dear Democrats, just consider the blogiverse as the Iron Lady to your Bush père: this is no time to go wobbly.

P.S., it's not too late to do the right thing on the torture bill, either.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Où sont les Safewords (or Democrats) d'antan?

by Ken Houghton

As usual, Digby sums it up:
[The Administration is] serious about confronting Iran or legalizing torture. It's all part of the same game. I think they've proven they like exercising power in all the ways that that implies.

Where are the safewords? I don't hear them from Schumer or Obama (the largest popular vote-margins of 2004, a.k.a. Two Safe Seats).

There are many Democratic vets (Kerry, Inouye, etc.) who are also in Safe Seats, and who should be making their voices heard.

Where is Obama's invocation of Faith? Where is Schumer defending the American values of Truth and Justice, which used to be troikaed with "The American Way"?

Oh, f*ck*t*ll, it's two days later, and Pierce just said it all, more rationally. But I still think my S&M "subtext" is incredibly appropriate: the Democrats are consensual Bottoms, and a bunch of Tops now have no reason to worry about the "consensual" part.

Title reference. (Heller's source is here.)

Annals of Incentive Pay

by Tom Bozzo

In this case, an obvious incentive to rise from the dead:
In a regulatory filing made Thursday, Cablevision disclosed that it had granted options to an executive after his death, but improperly recorded the date of the grant to an earlier time when the executive was still alive.

Cablevision didn't identify the executive but The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the situation, said the options were given to Vice Chairman Marc Lustgarten, who died in 1999. The Journal said Lustgarten's estate was entitled to exercise the options upon his death.


I challenge the laissez-faire business blawgosphere: defend this compensation practice!

NOTE: See Barry Orton's comment.

Brother Can You Spare $3.6 Million?

by Tom Bozzo

The W$J's Friday real estate ads bring some Chicago real estate market news: Frank Lloyd Wright's 1902 Heurtley House in Oak Park, one of the first true Prairie Style residences and "the finest restored Wright Prairie-style residence in existence today" (an ad claim seemingly borne out by the pictures of the house at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy site) is marked down from $4.9 million to $3.999 million. I'd telecommute for that.


Friday Pie Blogging: Relativity Edition

by Tom Bozzo

In honor of the late (?) best blog, the Fafblog!
Isaac, though better equipped than Daniel or any other man alive to understand Relativity, shewed no interest in his pie — as if being in a state of movement with respect to the planet Earth rendered it somehow Not a Pie. But as far as Daniel was concerned, a pie in a moving frame of reference was no less a pie than one that was sitting still: position and velocity, to him, might be perfectly interesting physical properties, but they had no bearing on, no relationship to those properties that were essential to pie-ness... If Pie were far asunder from Daniel or moving at a large relative velocity — e.g., being hurled at his face — then its pie-ness was somehow impaired, at least from the Daniel frame of reference. For the time being, however, these were purely Scholastic hypotheticals. Pie was on his lap and very much a pie, no matter what Isaac might think of it.

— Neal Stephenson, The System of the World
Note to self: get apples at market, make pie this weekend.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

"Tell me are you a Christian child?" "Ma'am, I am tonight!"

by Ken Houghton

As 5766 fades and 5767 approaches with the Sabbath, I've tried to avoid thinking about George Allen. But Brad DeLong (who else?) provides the final straw with this piece from Wonkette, and especially:
Jennifer Allen's memoir does have this anecdote, though:
I'd only been to church once. Throughout the service, Mom gave a continual play-by-play.

The procession of the priest: "Here comes the hypocrite."
The collection plate: "Here come the vultures."
The forgiveness of sins: "Here comes the guilt."

We kinda like Etty Allen.

If this is how one "was raised as a Christian, and my mother was raised as a Christian," then someone needs to rework the catechism/Confirmation process.*

It gets slightly more interesting, though. The Forward article continues:
"And I embrace and take great pride in every aspect of my diverse heritage, including my Lumbroso family line's Jewish heritage, which I learned about from a recent magazine article and my mother confirmed." Later in the day, Allen's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, identified the article as a story by E.J. Kessler that appeared in the Forward last month. According to Wadhams, after reading the article the senator decided to ask his mother about her Jewish roots.

The article in question is here. One highlight:
Though Etty Allen seems not to have dwelled on it during her years in the spotlight as a coach's wife, she comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family. Her father, who was the main importer of wines and liquors in Tunis—including the Cinzano brand—was known in France, where he lived after World War II, as part of the family, according to French Jewish sources. If both of Etty's parents were born Jewish—which, given her age and background, is likely—Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother.

Our daughters are DAR because they're mine. Our daughters are Jewish because they are Shira's. George Felix Allen, son of a Jewish mother, is Jewish. Those are matters of fact.

Another matter of fact is that the Forward article was published on August 25th—more than three weeks before the debate with Webb on September 18th, from which this video has made the rounds. And weeks after his mother told him the truth.

Allen's mother's family is hardly undistinguished:
Dr. Jeffrey Malka, an expert on Sephardic genealogy, told the Forward in an e-mail that in Portugal the Lumbrosos became conversos—unlike Spanish Jews, Portuguese Jews were not allowed to leave and were forcibly converted en masse—who escaped to Livorno, where they were able to return to Judaism. Malka called the Livorno community "fascinating" because, invited by the Medicis, they became wealthy and powerful traders, setting up branches in Tunis and ransoming Jews captured by Barbary pirates.

Among the most famous members of the family, Malka said, was Itzhak Lumbroso, an 18th-century rabbi and rabbinic judge who wrote a commentary on the Talmud, "Seed of Isaac," that was the first book printed in Hebrew in Tunis.

This is not the type of heritage one normally wishes to deny—and certainly not one about which to be petulant. And one cannot say Allen wasn't warned about possible consequences. Again, from the Forward article:
Political analyst John Mercurio of National Journal's noted tip sheet, The Hotline, said that any complication "would depend largely on how this information was revealed."

"If it was discovered that Allen knew this family history, but attempted to keep it under wraps for whatever reason, it could do great harm to any political campaign," Mercurio wrote in an e-mail. "He'd face serious questions, in the wake of the Macaca incident and his history with the Confederate flag, of whether he's both racially prejudiced and anti-semitic....[O]n the other hand, if this is something he discovers and promptly reveals about himself, and does so with a sense of pride in his family history, I don't think he'd face much backlash at all."

Twenty-four days later, we know for certain that he did not take Mercurio's advice.

Let us be clear: Allen downplays the Catholic side of his family as well. He is described as "a practicing Presbyterian," the religion of neither of his parents:
In another of the book's anecdotes, George Allen Sr., a practicing Roman Catholic, encounters problems when he wants to marry his fiancee, Etty, in a Catholic church.

"The priest said he would marry them only if Mom agreed to raise as Catholic any children the marriage might produce," Jennifer Allen wrote. "As a young woman, my mother had an 'incident' with a priest in Tunis, so Mom said 'Over my dead body' to the priest. My mother and father were married by a justice of the peace in a Jewish friend's home with two witnesses."

Apparently, George Felix Allen and his handlers believe that he needs to be seen as a non-Catholic, non-Jewish Christian. As the New Year approaches, it's probably too much to hope that Allen embraces his heritage—either of his heritages. That he doesn't seem able or willing to do so reflects poorly on his character. He isn't what he is; he is what he thinks the voters want him to be.

That should not make his mother—or her ancestors—proud.

*As you can see from the rest of this post, I cannot tell if Allen went through the Protestant or the Catholic process. (It is safe to assume he was not bar mitzvahed.) Indeed, one might now expect some intrepid reporter to find documentation of whether he was actually raised in a Christian faith, or—as I would suspect—became Presbyterian in his adulthood and only then went through any catechism, as is implied by his sister's memoir.

Title reference; see especially Dave Marsh's notes entry here. And, yes, I am kicking myself that I used Randy Newman's "Land of Dreams" on this post, since "An American Christian! Goddamn!" would have been the perfect title here.

Wisconsin Governor: Trying Not To Look Inside Those Eggs, Not Necessarily Succeeding

by Tom Bozzo

Mark Green, the Republican candiate for governor of my fair state, is in Trouble. With a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Poor. As in his campaign is.

First, General Kos brought me this happy news yesterday:
WISCONSIN (Governor)

Strategic Vision (R). 9/15-17. Likely voters. MoE 3% (8/11-13 results)

Doyle (D) 46 (45)
Green (R) 42 (44)
Note the (R) after Strategic Vision. It's a Republican-affiliated polling outfit — so you'd want to watch out for the possibility of opinion formation rather than opinion measurement activities if they were indicating Green narrowly ahead — and they're saying Green is behind Gov. Doyle.

Second, Green has been steadfastly trying to throw away any advantage he might have gained from attempting to run a cleaner-than-thou campaign. (*) The Green campaign is headed to court to try to hold on to a few hundred thousand dollars in out-of-state PAC contributions transferred from Green's congressional campaign funds.

Green's central problem is that he needs the money — regardless of the fate of the disputed funds, he's so far been outraised and outspent by Doyle, who enters the peak season with a modest advantage in cash-on-hand. This says "loser" in a couple ways: Wisconsin has been considered a prime pickup opportunity for the Republicans, since Doyle's defensive efforts to keep the Wisconsin Taliban from turning the state into North Dakota haven't thrilled extreme elements on either end of the spectrum (though they've been vital to our quality of life), and you might have thought Republican cash would flow towards it. Green might as well tattoo "I can't win on the merits, so I need to buy lots of those beloved negative ads if I hope to win" on his forehead.

Third, about those ads? Maybe it's not so bad if he gets the money. During the 9 o'clock news, we caught a pathetic new Green ad on the state's higher education problems.

The scene is of ordinary Joe and Jane Wisconsins, in the stands at a high school football game, discussing how hard it is for in-state kids with OK grades to get into UW-Madison — indeed, those darn out-of-state kids with worse grades can get in with their dirty out-of-state tuition money. (The kids evidently aren't in the elite college market, where I understand well-connected kids with at best middling academic backgrounds can be admitted on non-meritocratic criteria. Maybe not so much as once upon a time, though.) A couple seats over, Mark Green, wearing a green sweater (get it?!), chimes in to take a couple more licks at Doyle over the trajectories of in-state and out-of-state tuition. At first, I was confused because I'm used to seeing red this and red that on Badger football and basketball attendees, and Green's green was not Green Bay Packers green, or green-and-gold, either (could Mark Green, whose congressional district includes Green Bay, be a fair weather Packer backer? I insinuate, you decide). Green promises to admit more in-state kids to UW-Madison, which he apparently will fund with higher edu-ponies. Joe Wisconsin accepts Green's application for Governor! Endut! Hoch hech!

Of course, it's totally dishonest to suggest that the Doyle dream budget would stick it to the University of Wisconsin system or its undergraduate students. Green's own Republican buddies control both houses of the state legislature, so you might as well ask John Gard why in-state tuition has been going up. Moreover, the basic state funding priorities (i.e., massive expansion of the prison-industrial complex) that lead to the increasing privatization of the UW are owed to the years of Thompsonism preceding Doyle.

Admitting more in-state students at Madison means coughing up money that Green was steadfastly asserting that he wouldn't raise and (despite the obvious legacy of the Republican Congress of which he's been a part) would be loath to spend anyway.

The fineness of the ad's targeting is also curious. While obsessing about positional goods may be a national mania, specifically obsessing about getting into elite colleges and flagship campuses of state university systems is more of an upper-middle class disease. Do Green's strategerists think they need to goose the turnout (if not support) of Waukesha County "mortgage moms?" It's big trouble for his campaign if so, unless fear of Teh Gay really heats up in the late campaign season. 'Cause otherwise it's odd to imply that if you've landed at UW-Eau Claire, -La Crosse, -Stevens Point, etc., you've been missing out on the real action in Madison — even though Madison is a Bad Place run by raving socialists aiming their liberal indoctrination rays at unsuspecting youth arriving from the Provinces for what ought to be learning. Or something.

In any event, if you really want to put the "public" back in public higher education, a good place to start would be to stop the de facto privatization of state university systems. And their priorities being what they are, Republicans won't be agents of that change.

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(*) An ad funded by the Republican Governors Association attempts to connect Doyle to the conviction of a state employee on corruption charges related to a travel contract award. However, the employee in question had been hired under the previous Republican administration. While the motive may have been to curry favor with higher-ups, the case fell well short of Doyle political appointees — and not for want of trying on the other side of the aisle, I'm sure. While I sometimes think Doyle could make a better show of being a scrupulous and tireless campaigner for clean government, it's fundamentally Thompsonism that's to blame for eroding Wisconsin's traditional progressive ideals on that front.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Duncan can wait until next year

by Ken Houghton

With due respects to Mr. Black (who also appears to have found out from The Colbert Report that they were awarded today), I am thrilled to see that John Zorn has been awarded a grant as a MacArthur Fellow.

And not only because he's one of the few people this year who is older than I.

Time to play the Shelley Hirsch version of "What's New, Pussycat?" from Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach again.

For other great modern music, check out his record label. L'Shana tovah!

Reinforcing Republican myths about liberal Godlessness

by Ken Houghton

This morning, a legally-elected leader of a free country used the language of religion in discussing U.S. actions:
"The devil came here yesterday," Chavez said, referring to Bush's address on Tuesday and making the sign of the cross. "He came here talking as if he were the owner of the world."

The Republican Slime Machine was immediately out in force, lying about his record:
Ambassador John Bolton told The Associated Press that Chavez had the right to express his opinion, adding it was "too bad the people of Venezuela don't have free speech."

Title reference.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Living Hand to Mouth

by B. Strong

From CNN today, a story about a doctor who stole a human hand from a cadaver to give to an exotic dancer. Gruesome, yes, but that's not what caught my eye:
Rashed, 26, is free on $1000 bail...
The charge against Rashed carries up to 10 years in prison.


$1000 bail vs. the risk of 10 years in prison, not to mention the near-certain loss of your medical license. Now, I'm not an economist, but it seems like the incentive to stick around is ridiculously low. What would you do?

How 'Bout That Incentive Pay?

by Tom Bozzo

Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have extensive coverage of energy trading woes at the hedge fund Amaranth Advisors. The W$J's headline is more dramatic than the Times's. As the natural gas market turned against the fund's bets (and gambling terminology seems the only appropriate way to describe their strategies), the fund lost $5 billion. Out of not-quite-$10 billion. In a week.

Dan Gross says:
Something tells me the gigantic losses at gigantic hedge fund, documented in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times today aren't going to show up in the various hedge fund indices that purport to track the performance of the sector.
Good question. Another is whether Amaranth will try to climb its way out of the chasm of its recent losses the old-fashioned way, or shut up shop on the grounds that it'll take too long for it to get back on the incentive fee gravy train. (*)

Yet another good question is whether top traders' pay packages appropriately reflect the risks they take. Their chief energy trader was lavishly compensated during the fund's high-flying days. Per the NYT:
Its energy portfolio has been overseen by Brian Hunter, a trader who joined the fund from Deutsche Bank in 2004 and conducts trades from his hometown of Calgary, Alberta. Mr. Hunter made enough money at Amaranth in 2005, an estimated $75 million to $100 million, to place him among the 30 most highly paid traders in Trader Monthly magazine.
Conceivably, Hunter will not do so well over the nearer term, but does his downside reflect that of his investors?

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(*) Under usual arrangements, hedge funds that charge performance incentive fees (a percentage of the fund's returns) must clear the fund's previous 'high-water mark' to collect additional fees. Accordingly, a tactic used by some managers is to close the funds and start over if the high-water mark is too high.

We also remind interested readers that the lack of variation in hedge fund incentive fees, typically 20%, in the face of massive entry is an interesting economics-of-competitive-entry problem.

Fuel Economy and Its Discontents

by Tom Bozzo

A "few" words by way of follow-up on Ken's post on the flex-fuel vehicle boondoggle.

First of all, Ken is right that you'd have a damn hard time finding a domestic policy initiative more perverse than the promotion of flex-fuel vehicles. (*) It is not as if the less stringent "truck" fuel economy standards and exemption of "trucks" from the gas guzzler tax weren't already doing quite a bit to prop up the Big Three's fuel-inefficient cash cows.

On Friday night, not surprisingly, Governor Doyle took what amounted to the double pledge in the gubernatorial debate — extolling Wisconsin's future as a producer of ethanol and of GM's full-size SUVs (built at the Janesville assembly plant) in the same breath. (**) Now, there's no doubt that keeping the Janesville plant open is important for the economy of far south-central Wisconsin. But if policymakers think we can muddle our way through an era of high petroleum prices by burning ethanol with even greater abandon than we've been burning gas, we're doomed. The long-term future of Janesville also arguably would be better-assured if it produced vehicles that were more marketable in an era of high fuel prices.

Ken also suggests that I might regret much of this lengthy post from a year ago on proposed changes to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for trucks. I actually think the post still is pretty good.

My position on CAFE is more favorable than you'll see from many economists, including some who have met regulations that they actually can tolerate. As a practical matter, it's the only game in town — even though it's been all but impossible to tighten the car CAFE standards despite high fuel prices and a broad consensus that (if not how) the U.S. additction to oil should be kicked.

But I do join what I'd think would be a sizeable majority of economists who think — assuming away the politics, of course — that fuel efficiency would be best promoted with fuel taxation. And the experience of the last couple years has made a solid case that it doesn't take infinite fuel prices to get Americans to reconsider their love of oversized vehicles with the aerodynamics of bricks (which self-interested marketers have tendentiously suggested represent innate preferences). After all, just $1 tacked on to the price of a gallon of gas has sent large SUV sales into free-fall and resuscitated economy cars as a hot market segment, all while no action to speak of was taken on the political front.

As for the politics of fuel taxes, someone could make the case that the $1 is better paid to ourselves than paid to make oil company investors and at best middlingly friendly petroleum-exporting states richer. Of course, that would take actual leadership. Devising workable plans to rebate much of the proceeds of a tax to consumers while reserving some funds for long-underfunded transportation alternatives would be a good use of reality-based technocrats' abilities.

Among CAFE's bigger problems — and the subject of the earlier post — has been the separate, less-stringent truck standard combined with regulations that encourage the classification (or reclassification) of vehicles whose function is the same as the car-based station wagons of my youth as trucks. Hence, something like the Subaru Legacy wagon is a car, while a Subaru Legacy wagon modified with additional ride height and marketed as the Subaru Outback can play a more-efficient-than-standard truck — even while giving up a couple miles per gallon to its car sibling with the same engine.

The truck CAFE changes proposed by the Bush administration purported to address the car-truck classification game by setting several standards based on vehicle size, and eliminating the ability to average the fuel economy of trucks in different size classes. This adds considerable complexity to the CAFE rules, which itself is curious given the usual Republican religion of regulatory streamlining, and should arouse suspicion.

As I said, that suspicion has three main grounds. One is that most of the improvement in standards is in the smaller size categories: those would be made identical of much closer to the car standards. This move, I'd suggested, should be regarded as a poke in the eye to foreign manufacturers' relatively efficient smaller SUVs and crossovers more than anything. Those already meet, or nearly meet, the tighter standards, and the main change would be that they couldn't be averaged with bigger trucks in their makers' model lines. Since the averaging of relatively efficient and less efficient vehicles is CAFE's quid pro quo (***), getting rid of the feature doesn't

Second, the proposed rules would allow manufacturers to meet one criterion for classifying a vehicle as a truck — that it have a flat cargo floor — with folding but not necessarily removable seats. Since most hatchbacked cars already have folding back seats to expand their cargo areas, this would make it easier for manufacturers to play the car-truck classification game with no gain to the cause of fuel economy. My earlier take still stands:
Indeed, wagons have been getting flatter-folding seats if only for the market-driven utility value of the flat cargo floor. You'd have to think that if the folding seat provision survived the rulemaking process without a clarification limiting its applicability to station wagons, only a sucker of a car maker wouldn't take appropriate steps to ensure that its mid-sized wagons met the light-truck definition. Permitting widespread cross-over of wagons into the light truck CAFE category would do a lot to subvert the cause of fuel economy.

Third, fuel economy standards for large trucks would actually be relaxed outright versus current regulations. Considering what $3 gas does to the marketability of large trucks, there's a distinct "with friends like these..." character to the proposal. Combined with the E85 boondoggle, this is a double-whammy: encouraging big flex-fuel trucks to guzzle more ethanol than they otherwise would. Perhaps Archer Daniels Midland and big corporate beneficiaries of agriculture subsidies would be the main beneficiaries of the new standards.

To conclude from the above discussion that CAFE should be chucked would, of course, be wrong. What it really says is that you'll get what you'd expect from agencies run under principles where good government occurs by accident.

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(*) "Synthetic" fuel subsidies (spraying oil on coal to make a "synthetic") are right up there. Also, some elements of Medicare Part D are worse in magnitude if not necessarily intensity of perversity (i.e., having at least such plausible deniability as was needed to twist the arms of a few skeptical Republicans that they represented something saleable as "market-based reforms"). Needless to say, it doesn't hold a candle to current U.S. antiterrorism and especially promotion-of-peace-and-stability-in-the-Middle-East policies.

(**) Republican challenger Mark Green was much sillier in ripping off a United Parcel Service trademark: state government should "move at the speed of business." Oh, to have been in the audience with a format that would permit asking, "Congressman Green, what the hell does that mean?" (****) Green's performance also had a manic edge that I found disturbing.

(***) I.e., manufacturers who sell desirable economy cars can also sell bigger cars with less risk of penalties.

(****) Obviously, there are numerous situations where the public interest is that government most emphatically not move at the "speed of business." The appropriate "speed of government" may, moreover, be faster than that of business in some of those instances.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Good thing there were no Chinese Embassies in Southern Lebanon

by Ken Houghton

Courtesy of Nachum Segal comes this item from the Jerusalem Post, which generally supported the war, summarizing one reason the recent invasion was such a CF:
"While the pilots had intelligence information that was updated in 2006, ground forces used intelligence from 2000 - I am not singling anybody out for blame, but there is no doubt that presented problems," he said.
Was Olmert really so desperate for war as to put the ground troops at unnecessary risk?

By contrast, Tom Toles is still a Priceless National Treasure

by Ken Houghton

One of the Washington Post's few remaining assets (op cit. DeLong, e.g., here) explains the difference between mean and median directly enough that, perhaps, even NRO columnists will could, were they not demonstrating "deliberate obtuseness," understand.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Stupidest Man Alive Award Contender: John Yoo

by Tom Bozzo

Unlike perennial contender Donald Luskin, whose buffonery doesn't exactly set policy, Berkeley law professor John Yoo is a key architect of the theories of executive power under which George W. Bush claims the power to eavesdrop on your communications without a warrant, declare you an enemy combatant and lock you up without access to counsel indefinitely, subject you to interrogation tactics that constitute torture by any sensible definition of the term, etc.

In today's NYT, Yoo tries to explain how these arrogations of power and many more are just Bush's good faith effort to restore the system of checks and balances back to their natural state. To buy this argument, you'd have to have failed American history somewhere in middle school age, having believed that the Founders declared independence to establish a more perfect monarchy.

But Yoo's column has one whopper that transcends the mere dangerous misguidedness of his theories, and into just total stupidity. That is:
The changes of the 1970’s occurred largely because we had no serious national security threats to United States soil...
Oh, really?

A close runner up is:
[A] fragmented legislature is obviously much easier to game than a chief executive.
Obviously, it depends on who the chief executive is. Insofar as Bush hadn't exactly run on a stronger-executive platform, I suspect that the Administration's monarchists found themselves an especially easy-to-game chief executive.

Addendum: Charles Pierce also remembers this "Cold" war at Tapped.
Pierce also reminds us that the "What part of 'The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish'" award goes to:
[Yoo:] The White House has declared that the Constitution allows the president to sidestep laws that invade his executive authority. [Emphasis added.]
More analysis of other substantive errors in Yoo's column may be found at LGM, Greenwald, The Heretik, TalkLeft, and the Volokh Conspiracy. Elements of the Bush apologist contingent are quiet on the subject, though I recall Ann asserting, in the course of taking her shots at Judge Anna Diggs Taylor on the NYT op-ed page, the following:
[The WPE] isn’t arguing that he’s above the law. He’s making an aggressive argument about the scope of his power under the law. It is a serious argument, and judges need to take it seriously. If they do not, we ought to wonder why a court gets to decide what the law is and not the president... Why should the judicial view prevail over the president’s?
The last is easy enough — even I remember Article III, Section 1 (q.q.v.). As for "isn't arguing that he's above the law," you certainly may define "the law" such that the statement is technically true, but it's nevertheless "sheer sophistry." The argument, in slightly less gross summary, is that supposed limitations on Congress's legislative power place the president above some legislation passed by Congress (and signed by the president), but not all of it. On the face of it, Article I, Section 8 appears to give Congress pretty broad latitude to regulate the U.S. Government and "any department or officer thereof," and Article II, Section 3 doesn't directly circumscibe "the laws" that the president "shall take care... be faithfully executed." So an armchair observer of constitutional law might be forgiven for thinking that "president not bound by legislation (or other equivalent law)" is an extraordinary claim. We may "need to take it seriously," but not so much because it withstands serious scrutiny outside the confines of friendly law reviews as that the consequences of ignoring the power grab are dire.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Feeding the Wrong Pigs

by Ken Houghton

From Knowledge Problem comes a report from Consumer Reports on "flexible-fuel vehicles" (FFVs) and the reality of Ethanol. They buried the lede of the bullet points; I correct this below

  1. The FFV surge is being motivated by generous fuel-economy credits that auto-makers get for every FFV they build, even if it never runs on E85. This allows them to pump out more gas-guzzling large SUVs and pickups, which is resulting in the consumption of many times more gallons of gasoline than E85 now replaces.

    So automobile manufacturers are getting "fuel-economy credits" for making cars burn more fuel--and the ethanol besides.

    And it's not as if there is even a close competition.

  2. The fuel economy of the Tahoe dropped 27 percent when running on E85 compared with gasoline, from an already low 14 mpg overall to 10 mpg (rounded to the nearest mpg). This is the lowest fuel mileage we've gotten from any vehicle in recent years.
    With the retail pump price of E85 averaging $2.91 per gallon in August, according to the Oil Price Information Service, which tracks petroleum and other fuel prices, a 27 percent fuel-economy penalty means drivers would have paid an average of $3.99 for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.

    There is your $1.00 ($1.08 at that level) per gallon gasoline tax increase, folks—except that it won't go to cleaning up the environment or making better roads or even general revenues to reduce other taxes. Worst of both worlds.

  3. When we calculated the Tahoe's driving range, we found that it decreased to about 300 miles on a full tank of E85 compared with about 440 on gasoline. So you have to fill up more often with E85.

    That looks like a 32% decrease in actual fuel efficiency to me (140/440 = 31.818...).

  4. Because E85 is primarily sold in the upper Midwest, most drivers in the country have no access to the fuel, even if they want it. For our Tahoe test, for example, we had to blend our own (see The great E85 fuel hunt [subscriber-only link]).

    That's right, folks. Once again, those of us not located in the "Upper Midwest" are subsidizing the rest of youAgricultural Conglomerates such as ADM and Cargill, as well as a few farmers in Iowa. And, since air pollution (of which more will be generated by vehicles using E85) is transported, we will also have our standard of living reduced.

In this context, I reiterate my defense (op. cit. here) that CAFE standards at least work from a measured, defined base. If Tom had known that the "alternative" was subsidizing the burning of more gasoline plus converted corn in the name of "fuel economy," he might never has written this post, except for this prophetic paragraph:
At this stage, it's too early to say whether the fuel economy rules will be an item for Jonah Gelbach's new Faint Praise series, or just plain damnation. Given the administration's proclivities, it's always safe to be on the lookout for the latter.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dear Lord, Let's Make A Deal

by Tom Bozzo

In its quest to be relevant for the 21st century, Time's cover headline asks, "Does God want you to be rich?" Well, if you need to ask that question, I'll happily arrange a series of counseling sessions at market-competitve prices. Better me than some dude who thought this was a good career move, know what I'm saying?

A more sober appraisal would regard this as yet more evidence that "intelligent design" theory is a crock. For if God did want us (viz.: humanity) to be rich, God made us remarkably bad at getting rich. When I was in D.C. a few weeks ago, my grad school friend who works for McKinsey asked me if I'd heard about the nine-figure quantity of Chinese and Indians who have, through the miracle of globalization, seen their incomes rise from $1/day to $2. While I wish the nascent Chinese and Indian middle classes well, this could serve as a reminder that the vast majority of the human population lives somewhere between routine and abject poverty — the person who assembled your iPod may work in the 21st century answer to the Satanic mills of the 19th, but s/he wasn't exactly yanked out of the Garden of Eden, either.

Even in the rich world, most people really aren't doing so hot. Recent research tries to suggest that middle-aged Americans have been, if anything, over-saving — but I'm not inclined to buy. The latest data suggest that the median pre-retirement boomer's financial assets will throw off just about enough income to fund the Medicare Part D donut hole, and indeed would be looking at a material living standard hit even assuming his/her home equity could be cheaply turned into an annuity, which is not actually possible. So there.

But we were talking about religion? Oh yeah. Now, the birth of Republican Jesus is not exactly news — it's in fact a key part of the c*cktease we call our ruling coalition: the alliance of the religious and corporate right wings. Certain academics who are not exactly beloved in conservative circles have, indeed, depicted the corporatist perversion of Christianity as a major problem of modern society.

This is fairly evident in a box that pits biblical verse against biblical verse in an attempt to answer the original question. Needless to say, the "No" side is well-represented with New Testament citations. The "Yes" side, resorting to Malachi on the OT front — not something you'll hear everyday in a Catholic Mass — strains even to cherry-pick something from the NT.

Here's what's offered:

Luke 6:38, verse beginning with, "Give, and it will be given to you."

In an extreme stretch, you could take this wildly out of context as approval of the marginal productivity theory of labor compensation. But significant elements of the Really Rich should be terrified at the prospect of being compensated according to their marginal products, let alone getting their charitableness (arts organizations don't count by this standard) reflected back at them.

If you think that was weak, try John 10:10, which says in significant part: "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly."

Here, I am moved to utter one of Drek's favorite expletives (*). Really, does anyone with the least shred of Christian religious education not understand that the referenced abundance is spiritual? The Time research staff get 0/10 points for this one.

Evangelical capitalist friends, there is no getting past it: Jesus was, by modern standards, a raving socialist. Get rich if you're so inclined, but don't think anyone's blessing your business deals. Just look at Saint Kenny Boy.

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(*) Yes, the linked image came up in a Google image search for "Drek."

I'll Take My Chances With The Helmet

by Tom Bozzo

Via Mark Thoma, Andrew Gelman discusses a study (summarized here) by a U.K. researcher suggesting that bike helmets may be dangerous to cyclists because motorists drive more agressively around cyclists they perceive to be experienced.

Ian Walker of the University of Bath recorded the distance at which motor vehicles passed him for a large number of interactions during rides with and without a helmet; he found that the average distance was 3.3 inches less for the helmeted encounters; moreover, he was hit twice while riding the helmeted portion of the experiment. That Walker's accidents didn't seem to materially impede his work may vouch for the efficacy of helmets conditional upon an accident; he understandably didn't partake in helmetless 'control' accidents.

Much of the discussion, explicit (at Gelman's) or implicit (at Marginal Revolution) is on the driver psychology effect. But while the 3.3 inches is characterized as (at least statistically) significant, the large fraction of the variance in distance not explained either by helmet-wearing or the distance Dr. Walker rode from the edge of the roadway suggests clearer implications for traffic engineering.

From my bike commuter's perspective, much of what makes Madison a cyclist's paradise — at least when the temperature is above freezing — is the combination of dedicated trails and other cycling routes with marked bike lanes or other accommodations for cyclists (e.g., wide shoulders). Thankful as I am to those motorists who are kind enough to share the road, I see my welfare as being improved when there's less need to share in the first place.

In the former case, there just aren't cars around to worry about, so the principal hazards are other cyclists and careless (i.e., absorbed in mobile telephony) peds; potential collision speeds and energies would seem to be well in the range where preventing inadvertent skull-cracking is both within the helmet's repertoire and addresses the major health risk — unlucky landings aside.

In the latter, 3.3 inches' difference in approach distance would be harder to notice, as I've observed typical passing distances of several feet, though the movement in the tail of the distribution may lead to a large relative increase in a small risk of collision, a la Walker's findings. (I may not be Lycra-clad, but my helmet and pannier would presumably peg me as a reasonably serious commuter under the driver psychology hypothesis.) Otherwise, I doubt that the helmet would have much marginal effect on motorists barreling down bike lanes.

The accommodations are particularly important for interactions with heavy vehicles. Walker's two accidents were with a bus and a truck. Both buses and heavy trucks are reported as passing several inches closer, on average, than light vehicles. Offhand, vehicle width differentials would seem to account for much of the difference. On narrower streets, those few inches could easily make the difference between a close shave and a trip into a ditch or worse.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Picture In Lieu of Many More Words

by Tom Bozzo

Suggested Caption: "We paid a half-trillion dollars* for WHAT?!"


See Matthew of Large Media, via Max.

Technology Marches On

by Tom Bozzo

Following the Leader's speech yesterday, I was transported back to the purchase of my first gigabyte-ish hard disk drive in 1994 or thereabouts — $700 for a bare SCSI drive with a whopping 992 megabytes of formatted capacity. That it's commonplace notwithstanding, I'm still occasionally amazed that the same money in nominal terms now can buy 500 times that, with change back; alternatively, that you can pay half, get only 80 times the amount (if in less than an eighth of the old drive's cubic volume), but the manufacturer throws in this nifty music-and-video player for free! (*)

I haven't tried using the iTunes TV store as an a la carte alternative to cable yet, but an announced increase in video quality makes it likelier. I did detect a couple changes of terms here and there. I'd have sworn they'd been selling BSG by the season at prices not inconsistent with the DVD sets, though it's now only available by the episode. About all Apple would need to add for my purposes would be the new Doctor Who and I'd be set.

The news account of the new iTunes cover browser was not fully illustrative, but it's a relatively cool feature, akin to browsing certain styles of jukebox. (And the new version upgrade thankfully didn't blow up my computer or music library.) The main limitation is getting cover art to populate it: iTunes took its time chewing over my collection for the automated Get Artwork feature; confirming the iTunes Store Esoterica Index of the collection, most of the albums came up blank, leaving a generic album icon (the black square with the musical notes):

iTunes cover browser
Strange bedfellows.

Still, on a modern Mac (e.g., our iMac G5), you can slew through a large album collection very quickly while the visual cues of the covers seem to be no less useful for orientation than following a scrolling text list. Unfortunately, the automated feature isn't perfect — or it needs some database surgery at a minimum. It'll sometimes pull a closest match that ain't quite it.

Oops
Right band, wrong album.

Fortunately, a quick Web search and a drag-and-drop does the trick!

Fixed

And I'm happy that it might stop raining.


ADDENDUM: As this* is really about how highly compact data storage devices have affected our leisure activities, we should all say a big happy 50th birthday to the hard disk drive. A propos of the post title, the storage density of the drive in the new 80 GB iPod is roughly sixty million times greater than the original IBM (5 MB) hard disk drive of 1956.

Ma nature still takes the prize for cramming nearly a billion DNA base pairs of information in a trillionth of a gram of DNA. We walk around with a lot more information (much of it redundant, of course) than our weight in ultra-high-density hard drives, though microelectronics has some speed and data transfer rate advantages for the time being. Still, I figure it's only my limited scope of reading that hasn't had me come across some near-future SF in which really huge databases are coded in DNA, replicated in enormous numbers, and read in reasonable time using some sort of massively parallel quasi-biological processes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Being a Pundit Doesn't Mean Being Informed

by Ken Houghton

One of the things you are supposed to be able to assume about your pundits is that they are informed. Pantload, though, sets a new standard for Clueless Voting.

If you don't know what your Party is doing in your own district, why are we supposed to take you seriously on any other level?

Having lived on 86th Street for two years and voted there on a few occasions, I can vouch that Jonah's polling place is usually crowded, with a line of several people. But those are Democrats (like, say, Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame), so Mr. "45 Seconds" probably didn't deign to speak with them.

Explain Executive Compensation Theory Again, please

by Ken Houghton

I don't want to attack HPQ. Why bother? The company is so mismanaged it makes corrupt HBS darling American Home Products Wyeth (the Esso/Exxon/Exxon-Mobil of the pharmaceutical industry) and Eisner's DIS look reasonable.

Instead, I want to look at the question on everyone's mind: Other than break California laws, what dodid (see UPDATE) Patricia Dunn and the rest of HP management actually do?
"It's a good thing they're not trying to close a difficult merger or negotiate for a new CEO right now," Reynolds said. "But the business of HP and the leadership there is strong enough that this is just not an issue. It's certainly embarrassing, and it's obviously not the best press, but the good news is this is pretty much divorced from the day-to-day operations of HP."

The late Sherwin Rosen's thesis in The Economics of Superstars (link downloadable only if you have JSTOR access) was that small differences in skill can lead to large difference in wages. But surely those skills have to apply to creating value within the company?

So aside from their self-created Principle-Agent Problem
Following the investigation, board member George Keyworth II was identified as the source of the leak, and HP responded by barring him from seeking re-election.

which made it clear to at least one person that the company was not to be trusted with either his money or his time
Another HP director, longtime Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins, resigned from the board in May in protest of the investigators' tactics.

Perkins this weekend called on Dunn to resign.

HP has, perhaps, torn the veil off the idea that executives should be credited with the value created from the growth of a corporation.

UPDATE: There's no news here.

All God's Children Got a Place in the Choir

by Ken Houghton

Below, after Kim's post on the discussion of Steve Irwin's death, Tom suggested that Germaine Greer was "wrong to imply that Irwin was the victim of 'revenge' on the part of the animal world."

He's correct; only humans would perpetrate Revenge.

Anyone want to defend this as part of G-d's plan?

(Title reference)

Some things really are irredeemable

by Ken Houghton

It's f*ck*ng T-ball!

Someone cue Bérubé, who needs to be distracted from The Path to Disney Insolvency.

Monday, September 11, 2006

My Children, the Blog-ebrities

by Tom Bozzo

No, I'm not going to post a 9/11/01 reminiscence today, or even take a fresh whack at the WPE (tune in tomorrow for that). I'm trying to keep my chin up, so here are the kids being cute:
IMG_3739
(Yeah, separating them from the pacifiers is a battle we have deferred fighting.)

This evening's tale is from Saturday's Westside Community Market, where we hauled our very runny-nosed children to get some veggies and cookies. On the way out, I had Julia in one arm and a bag or two hanging off the other, when who did I meet IRL but bloggy pal Barry Orton — defender of 'net neutrality, editor of Paul Soglin's blog, secretary of the Westside Market's board, UW professor, bratwurst connoisseur, and much much more.

Without obviously pulling my leg, Barry claimed to have recognized me via Julia. That's Plausible, as you'd have to be a very close follower of the blog and/or my Flickr page to have caught glimpses of the grown-up members of the family. The representation you may have seen in the comments section here or on certain other Blogspot blogs is not really useful for real-world identification.

Actually, I was thinking of replacing it with a slightly more realistic version. The old one, see, uses a Han Solo minifigure torso, the collar of which is open to an extent you'd never see on the real me. Also, the clear coffee mug has been mistaken for a beer receptacle. Not that I have anything against beer, but if it's going to be assumed that my small plastic self is having a drink, a wine glass or stemmed cocktail glass would be more appropriate. So, voilà, LEGO minifigure me, version 2.0:
IMG_3732

Raising a small glass in anticipation of better days...

New York, Just Like I Pictured It...

by Ken Houghton

Scene: Penn Station New York, ca. 8:20am EDT, 11 Sep 2006.

Event: Orderly evacuation.

Details: Pending, but not serious enough to close the concourse or the 8th Avenue Subway station.

UPDATE: Checking both the NYT and NY1 showed nothing. 1010 WINS had the goods, though.

Noted for the record: It was very orderly in Penn Station, with all calm and helpful (notably including the police). The Culture of Weakness has not won, no matter how much "trash-talk" may come from the Stander-in-Chief.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Out of Context Quote, Small Sample Size

by Ken Houghton

"Rapid price changes lead to economic inefficiency." - Samuelson and Nordhaus, 16th ed., p. 373

TOS currently: $139.99 (though I believe it's $44.99 per season in the stores).

Original pricing from late 2004:

Season 1: $106.99
Season 2: $106.99
Season 3: $ 99.99

Memory serving, the set was offered last Xmas for around $270. BestBuy now lists it for $179.99.

Does this count as deflation?

By the way, the best Star Trek series is coming out for Thanksgiving.

The Times drinks Habitat's Kool-Aid—Still

by Ken Houghton

The letter from Peter Ostrower praising the efforts of his organization, Habitat for Humanity, in the rebuilding of New Orleans is revelatory.

(To be clear: I gave regularly to Habitat until they shifted their literature to emphasize that they are a "Christian" organization, at which point I shifted to other organizations. I still admire the work they do and their publicity skills.)

Mr. Ostrower declares his group "the city's largest organized rebuilding effort." How much rebuilding?
Habitat has handed over the keys to more than 30 houses this summer and plans to complete 100 homes this year.

Cool. At that pace, it would only take 300 years to rebuild the city. Ostrower continued:
Habitat's goal of 1,500 new houses by 2011 creates a significant demand for volunteer labor. Although our current progress may seem like a modest first step, it's an energetic start.

So, if they get the "volunteer labor," Habitat would be able to build an average of either 280 (if he means 2007-2011, inclusive) or 350 (if he means 2007-2010) houses a year. Which would have the city almost rebuilt around the end of this century.

Don't get me wrong; to re-emphasize, I support the effort of Habitat for Humanity in spirit (the rest of you can send cash). But their capacity and "energetic start" isn't anywhere near what would be needed.

Tell me again, please, why we should believe that private charities are any more efficient or effective than government support and funding?

"Relatively Minimal Resources"?

by Ken Houghton

Adam Nagourney proves once again that anything Karl Rove says will appear in one of his articles in the New York Times:
The difference is that there was no serious Republican challenger in the Connecticut Senate race, so the Democratic Party invested relatively minimal resources into helping Mr. Lieberman.
It's nice to know what the NYT thinks of Bill Clinton, Barbara Boxer, Evan Bayh, Dan Inouye, Christopher Dodd, and the others who prostrated themselves for Kissable Joe.

And, of course, not a note about one reason the Party may not have given Lieberman much cash (though the DSCC did endorse him): that the other side did.

Pretty Good for a Band being Ignored

by Ken Houghton

The Dixie Chicks have sold 1.5 MM copies of the Rick Rubin-produced Taking the Long Way and the album's first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice," has now spent a record-setting 12th straight week at #1 on the VH-1 Top Twenty Countdown.

(edited for clarity 10 Sep 9:50p)

Friday, September 08, 2006

I Get e-Mail

by Ken Houghton

Dear Ken,

Impeachment. Cutting and running from the War on Terror. Key defense systems dismantled. Tax cuts repealed. Speaker Pelosi.

Uh, what is, my wet dream for 2007, Alex?
That's what America could look like one year from now if Democrats take the majority. Don't wait a year find out how Democrats have weakened America - after it's too late. Get a sneak peak at what the news would be like in September 2007 - based on the Democrats' actual record - with America Weakly, the newspaper of record for the Democrat majority.

The link above is a tracking link. For those who don't want to click it or this direct one, I'll post some excerpts below the fold (worth reading). The letter continues
It doesn't take a wild leap of the imagination to figure out what government by the far-left would look like. The Democrats are already bragging about "killing" the Patriot Act, openly discussing impeachment, and at every turn they fight to undercut the tools we need to win the War on Terror. If they're this extreme now, imagine how extreme they'd be if they had total power in Congress? Find out with America Weakly. [emphasis mine]

Clearly, this person has better information than I do; I haven't heard anything of the sort. Have the left-wing blogs all missed this as well?
Visit the site. Send a link to all your friends and neighbors. And let's make it so the real headlines a year from now look nothing like America Weakly.

I'll do one better than that, my friend; I'll both forward your e-mail and post it on a blog where others can access it. But how can I trust your information?
Sincerely,

Ken Mehlman
Chairman, Republican National Committee


(excerpts below the fold)


Article excerpts:
The American people spoke last November, and they said they don’t want justices whose radical interpretation of the Constitution doesn't include so many of the new rights that judges have recognized over the years,” Neas said. “If we have to leave that seat empty until we elect a Democrat President, that’s exactly what we'll do.”

Yesterday...the eyes of the nation were on Chairman Conyers as – at precisely 9:00 a.m. – he gaveled into session the first formal House Judiciary Committee hearing into impeachment proceedings for President George W. Bush.

Chairman Conyers started the proceedings by calling them “long overdue” and pledging to hold President Bush accountable for “wrongdoing unlike any we have seen in the history of our nation.”

Fresh back from their August recess, Democrat majorities on Capitol Hill yesterday followed through on one of their major election year promises: passing legislation to roll back President Bush’s tax cuts....

“We need this money to pay for all sorts of vital national interests,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a press conference immediately after the Senate passed the bill. “We in Washington have a responsibility to take care of the American people, and after six years, we are finally making sure that we have the resources to live up to that responsibility.”

For example, the Democrats zeroed out any money for the President’s missile defense program.

“The ability to shoot down missiles launched from South Korea* is clearly provocative,” House International Relations Committee Chairman Tom Lantos said. “If developing a system to shoot down those missiles is provoking them, then we shouldn't do so. Diplomacy is the answer.”

The once-feared NSA Surveillance Program has been disbanded as well, after its funding was cut to zero.

“This program was a clear violation of due process,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said. “I don’t care how many attacks it might have stopped. Even if there really are sleeper cells in this country, we have a careful and deliberate process to stop them. Yes, it might take a bit longer, and we might not get every single bit of information, but that’s a small price to pay.”

The President’s veto is also ineffective against matters in which the Congress has the prerogative, like reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act.

“It'll never even come up,” one House leadership source said. “The Patriot Act is dead.”

*Yes, they do say South Korea.

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